“SHERMAN!” Her pet name for me. She didn’t have to shout it out, but she usually did anyway.
Eleanor was at her desk. Across the room from me, sure, but across a front office, not some cavernous Committee room, and the place was empty except for her two younger assistants, our friend Alexis and another staffer, Terri I think her name was, at their noticeably smaller desks. They sat facing each other, and alternated between looking at me and looking at each other, smirking at Eleanor’s greeting, knowing there was a really, really good Washington story there and that it probably involved cheap, tawdry sex. Of course, that was the effect Eleanor was looking for. And they were right, the sex was cheap, and tawdry too. But still.
People never die in Washington, they just move from one job to the next, showing up when you least expect it, usually somewhere where your very survival depends on whether they remember what happened when your paths crossed five years back. It was always the hardest lesson to teach young lobbyists: just because the new foreign policy staffer to a junior Subcommittee member was an uninformed idiot didn’t mean that you could treat them that way, because years later, when he or she was a Special Assistant to an Assistant Secretary of State, they’d remember how you treated them and they’d screw you for it. First lesson to new hires: be careful, be very careful.
The other people who never disappeared were old girlfriends or, well, whatever it was you’d call what Eleanor and I had that summer so long ago. Eleanor hadn’t just not disappeared. Oh no, she was my ex-lover from a very long time ago, my former landlady, my current downstairs neighbor, and the executive assistant to the Chief of Staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, all rolled into one. It was beyond incestuous, and often felt that way given the 20-year age difference between us, but it was so much one of those ‘small world’ Washington stories that most people never even blinked when I told them. If I told them, of course; it was never great for the reputation telling people you used to sleep with somebody almost twenty years your senior. At least not for guys.
Anyway, here I was, on the visitors’ side of the room, behind the half-wall and ‑doorway that led to the foreign affairs committee staff offices. And here was Eleanor, in a very cushy job with two assistants of her own, a job where she could talk on the phone to Congressmen and other supplicants, read all the interesting memos, but still pass the actual work on Alexis, Terri and the many other assistants running around the halls of the Committee. She had landed well.
“Hello, Eleanor. How’s the Committee treating you this morning?”
“Well, fabulously as ever.” She smiled at me, that wide, happy smile that brought back so many memories. Eleanor and I truly did go way back, back to my intern days in Mauritania.
* * *
I first got to know Eleanor in the back seat of a dilapidated 1960s Chevy wagon, a mammoth car, beaten to shit by sun, sand and heat, on a crazy drive across the Sahara to some godforsaken nowhere in the middle of the desert. As that summer’s Embassy intern, I’d met her briefly when I first came to the office, introduced around the building by our admin officer. I’d seen her at the constant Embassy dinners and parties, weaving among the crowds, her laugh a raucous, wild sound, bringing life and pleasure to more than just the small group she might be talking to. A roving secretary serving a three-month TDY, temporary duty, in the Nouakchott Embassy, Eleanor was a State Department lifer who spent her career flitting from mission to mission, filling in for those on vacation or sick leave, knowing she could get away with murder since she was the Embassy’s last resort. Twice-divorced, with a 20-something daughter in grad school in the States, she was always in search of the new, the different, the adventurous. How she’d decided she’d find it in this hellhole I’ll never know, but she had balls, I’ll give her that. Mauritania was a miserable place to serve out time, but Eleanor seemed to enjoy every minute.
I was just out of my Johns Hopkins Masters program. Looking back, I was awfully young for my age, and lucky to run into Eleanor: she stripped me of any innocence I had left.
It was a miserably hot day, but in the Mauritanian summer they always are. Perched on the westernmost edge of Africa and as large as Texas and Utah combined, Mauritania is all Sahara desert but for a thin strip of land along its southern border, the Senegal River. The days are hot and dry, except when the wind is up, when they are hotter and drier and the air is full of sand. With fewer people than camels or sheep, it’s a country where you make your own fun – or, more precisely, you make up things to fill your time and call them fun. We were on one such outing, a two-night romp deep in the desert to visit the home of our marabout driver, our holy man, a virtual stranger who for no apparent reason invited us to his ‘home’ and whose invitation we had, also for no apparent reason, accepted.
“Goddamn, he’s a terrible driver,” I moaned. “What am I doing in this crazyass country?”
Eleanor chuckled from the rear, where she was crammed between another Embassy secretary and our marabout’s wife. It was she who somehow found our host, brought him to the Embassy and then accepted his invitation on behalf of all of us – “well, shit,” she explained later, “I can’t go alone.” So here we were.
We’d left town around 11:00 a.m., idiotically heading out into the Sahara just as the day was beginning to get unbearably hot, and it was almost 1:30 now, the heat blasting up from the desert floor and off the hood of our ageless Chevy. Staring through the windshield at the unending sameness of the desert around us, I was struggling to keep myself awake. It was always like this, the heat draining you and beckoning you to sleep. I could feel myself sinking deeper into the seat, feel the sweat pouring down along my spine. The more I slid away, the more I could feel the sand, the sweat, the heat on my clothes, and then they too slipped away, images taking their place, images of Eleanor laughing, images of the hot sun beating on me, images of taking her in hand and pulling her toward me…
The jolt threw me forward, the sense of our car careening out of control snapping me awake, the adrenaline rush intense as I grabbed at the dashboard to steady myself. We were bouncing across the hard-packed sand, and as I looked up I could see our marabout rousing himself slowly from sleep. From the rear, I could hear Eleanor’s ever-present cackle, yet another adventure for a woman I was certain was just waiting for that one ultimate moment that would send her plunging to her death. Leaning forward to peer through the windshield, though, I could see this wouldn’t be it.
We were some fifty yards off the road, racing along at an oblique angle, our driver muttering something in Arabic, his wife surely from her tone cursing him wildly under her breath, and the rest of us in various states of disarray. The desert here seemed hard and somewhat rocky, and the surface only slightly worse that the road we’d been driving on. He edged the Chevy slowly to the left, bringing us back to the macadam surface, and smiling over at me mumbled, “vous etiez aussi endormis” in that crushingly terrible accent. Yes, we were also asleep, I thought, but we were not driving, mon ami.
Two sleepless hours later, we arrived at a group of tents, eight or nine of them, with a good-sized herd of camels nearby. “Honey, we’re home,” I called out the car’s window, to no one in particular, and with no response other than Eleanor’s wild laughter. We weaved slowly across the hard sand to our tents, women to one tent, me to another, where I fell into a dead sleep, the kind brought on by a long drive in an ancient Chevy set on ‘broil.’
That afternoon and evening brought us wonder after wonder, waking from our slumbers to aged goat roasting on a spit, to our marabout’s African slaves hard at work tending the herds and cooking our meal, to a feast of goat and couscous carefully eaten one-handed with our right hands the way they’d taught us in Embassy culture classes, to our fortunes told by the marabout, quietly, in private, like the great life secrets that they were, and most especially to the deep, endless power of the Sahara desert glimmering by the light of the stars. Massive, high dunes hid each meaningless spot in the desert from the next in an endless cycle. For the first time, I understood what it was to be truly alone in an undiscovered place, hidden from anyone or anything that knew of me or that I knew of, alone in this strange, desolate land with these strange, wonderful people whose lives were encompassed by this massive emptiness. In the firelight, I watched them, the marabout and his family, circled close to the fire, murmuring in the strange Hassaniyeh dialect, telling stories, I imagined, of the origins of the world, or of the first hajj, Mohamed’s hajj, and the rides across the sands in discovery of this distant life.
Hours later, rising from a deep, deep sleep, I stumbled from our tent, slowly waking to the fact that I’d never asked our host if there was an appropriate place to pee – or my colleagues how far from the tent would be diplomatic. The Milky Way, loud in the depths of the night, brought me to wakefulness, its bright light shimmering across the windswept sands, the chill air held back by the blanket I’d thrown around my shoulders. I tripped forward, watching the stars not the sand, past the camels shifting and lowing in the dark, toward the first dune I saw, a low face that I struggled up, feet slipping back as I climbed, falling forward to crawl up and over into the emptiness.
Once over the ridge, I took only a few steps, glancing back at the tents as they disappeared behind the crest, recognizing the foolishness of my modesty even as I continued that discreet extra few steps that ensured no one could see me. Dropping the blanket, I stared up at the line of stars, watching intently as I relieved myself, the strong hard stream hitting the sand an anomaly in the silence that surrounded me.
Climbing back a few steps up the slope, I squatted down, drawing the blanket around me as I took out my Marlboros. I was entranced, watching the next ridge in the light, knowing I could walk there quickly, cross it, turn left, cross another, turn right, turn myself around and disappear into the emptiness. The sand was a living thing to me, the world alive in a way I’d never known. Dragging deep on the cigarette, I pulled the smoke in, feeling it reach into every small nook, every crack and crevice of my lungs, feeling it inside me like this enormous, living snake of sand crawling across the world before me, unending, unbending to time or space or the touch of humanity. I was at home, like I’d never been before.
“That’s a foul and disgusting habit.”
It was Eleanor, on the ridge above me, looking down. Much later I learned that she’d been awake for two hours, waiting to see if I went out, waiting for me. Now, though, in this place she seemed an apparition, her native Mauritanian dress blowing lightly at her ankles, her thin, strong legs showing in flashes through the fabric, her smirking face masked in the deep folds around her head.
She took what remained of my virginity that night, there on the blanket, naked in the cold air, our warmth pulled from one another. Had I dreamt of the moment, it would have been some younger woman, a Peace Corps worker perhaps, not Eleanor at all, but I wasn’t dreaming and this place was my place and it needed so desperately to be shared, given, held onto. At 23, afraid of my own shadow in so many ways, desperately clumsy with women, I learned at last to let go of my fears and feed into the people and planet around me. And Eleanor was my guide.
* * *
Eleanor had come to the Hill after tiring of the State Department’s many postings, the constant travel, and the unpredictable bosses. Like many State employees, between her housing allowances, her hazardous duty pay and her salary, she had saved up a pile of cash to invest in D.C. real estate. She parlayed small investments into the purchase of five condos when her California St. apartment building was converted in the 1980s, back when D.C. real estate was affordable. One of those condos I’d later bought, for twice what she paid for it, which was how I’d ended up living upstairs from her.
Now in her late fifties, Eleanor had been with the Committee for about eight years, an irreplaceable asset who knew someone in just about every office in the State Department and, even better, how to ferret out every single secret in the building. She was the State Department’s greatest nightmare come to life. And she was loving every minute of it.
“Well, you’re looking lovely as ever,” I said, as I opened the door in the half-wall on my way to Eleanor’s desk. That drew a giggle and a smile from Alexis, and saying “hi” to her I once again marveled at the brown in her eyes. I couldn’t help noticing she was decked out that day in her dark blue dress, the one with the neckline, such that somehow every male visiting the Committee today would slide to her side of the office to ask whatever question they might have.
I stopped for a second; Alexis never wore that dress to work, only to Committee receptions and Embassy parties. I looked again at Eleanor, glanced back with a smile at Alexis, and continued toward Eleanor once more. She had that small smirk I’d seen often, the one that said she could tell my mind was working.
The Committee was holding its annual hearing with the Secretary of State that day, the best-attended hearing of the year. That meant that several Committee members would make their way to the hearing room through the same door I’d come in, and would see Alexis just as I had. They would notice. So that was it – Alexis was in the hunt for a job, something better than this receptionist gig, hoping some Congressman might notice her – or more precisely, when he noticed her, might think of a job in his office where she could have something more interesting, and better paying, to do. She hadn’t said anything at our recent dinner, but she was definitely in the hunt. Some bell was ringing in the back of my head about that, but I couldn’t seem to nail it down.
“Sherman, you’re just saying that.”
“I think,” Eleanor responded, “you said something about me looking lovely a moment ago.”
“Yes, sorry,” I said, shaking my head, “I was remembering a question I had about today, but I can ask it later.” Turning fully toward Eleanor now, I smiled, arms out in supplication. “I came to see if you can help me out – I have to check in with Kevin, but he’ll never agree to a meeting this close to the hearing. So I’m hoping I can slip back there” – pointing to the staff offices behind her – “and chat with him for a second.”
I paused, just long enough. “And yes, of course I’m just saying that, but that doesn’t make it any less true.” Cocking my head a little, I gave my best sheepish grin.
“Get back there, silly, but keep it fast and don’t let the Chairman see you.” She narrowed her eyes, as if she was reconsidering. “You know he hates lobbyists running around back there.”
I kept moving, bearing right into the back offices before Eleanor had even finished. As I passed, I winked, only for her, and mouthed a silent thanks. What a sweetheart.
* * *
Kevin was on the phone, his back to the door, comfortable in the knowledge that no one but fellow staffers were there with him. It was 8:15 a.m., after all, and Committee hearings don’t start until 9:30 at the earliest. So he had reason to believe he was safe.
“Hey, Kevin.” Quietly, just enough to let him know I was there, giving a ‘don’t worry about me, take your time’ wave when he turned, shock on his face. I pretended not to notice.
He said, “Hold on one sec,” as he turned to hit the hold button. “Jesus, how do you do that? Did the girls leave the front room empty again?”
Every single assistant on that Committee knew there was a history between Eleanor and me, although none, to my knowledge, knew what it was. But none of the ‘girls,’ as they’re still affectionately and condescendingly called, ever ratted us out to the professional staffers. Maybe because the professionals always insisted on calling them ‘girls,’ I thought, and had trouble remembering their names...
It’s the corollary to rule number one for lobbyists, the one about always treating people well – the staffers go on to more senior jobs, but the assistants are there forever, so never, ever overlook the support staff.
“Oh, I had a quick meeting back here. I just figured that while I was here I’d stop to check on that question we agreed on, the question about religious freedoms in the Stans. Just double-checking that he’ll be asking it live from the dais.” Dozens of questions get written up for every hearing, and they’ll all eventually get asked and answered – but 96 percent in writing. Kevin had promised me over the Armagnac that ours would be asked, but for all I knew he’d made ten such promises.
“Shit, well, you know you’re not supposed to be wandering back here.” He looked down at his desk, and then back at me, and grimaced. He was caught, and was having trouble finding a way out. He looked at the receiver in his hand. “Listen, ah, look, I gotta finish this call, but we’ll get to it when the third round of questions comes around.”
You sonofabitch, I thought, as Kevin hit the flashing button on his phone and returned to his call. Getting some boob Congressman to ask a question at a Committee hearing might not sound like a big thing, but for me it mattered: in the early stages with a new client, you need to turn over a lot of rocks, and even though we hadn’t yet signed the Dungan this was one of the few hearings where I could get a question on the table that people would notice. Like I said, if there were people out there keeping an eye out for anything Kazakhstan, they’d notice this question, and I’d hear about it. But only if the question was asked live, with the cameras rolling, while Secretary Rice was still sitting there.
My problem was that Kevin’s boss, the Honorable Edgar Kleinmayer, wouldn’t be caught dead hanging in for the third round of questioning. Not for this hearing: even the staffs referred to this as their annual ‘clusterfuck’ hearing, cameras all over the place, the room mobbed, every member in attendance down to the last fresh-scrubbed, blow-dried freshman from east Oklahoma or wherever, there for their one shot to get the Secretary of State on record on an issue they cared about, to posture for the lobbyists scattered through the room and the constituents watching at home, maybe even to hit the rare home run – by asking that one question that puts the Secretary on the spot more than the others, makes her squirm just enough that CNN Headline News would cover it. Or, even better, the nightly news on local TV. But the networks would head out after the first round of questioning, and the higher-paid lobbyists, when they even showed up, would head out somewhere in the middle of the second, followed quickly by most committee members. So by the third round of questions, it would be down to the Chairman, stuck there out of politeness to the witness, and the most junior committee members, fresh enough to the game that they’d still actually think the Secretary was listening to what they were saying rather than just spouting off the same circuitous blather that she’d been using to answer questions all morning.
Kleinmayer was senior enough that his second round of questions would come by about 11:30, so by staying he wouldn’t have pissed away anything more than the morning. But there was no way he’d be staying beyond that.
I was ready for this, though, and ready for the outburst that was sure to follow, so I held my ground with my best poker face on, waiting for Kevin to finish. Friend of Charlotte or not, I needed this guy and he’d made a commitment to me; he wasn’t getting off that easy.
Clearly annoyed by my presence, he raced through the end of his call, and turned to stare. I paused for a moment, grimacing, and then said, “Listen, you know, I’m sure you have other important issues, but I’m kind of stuck here. This is a really important question for us, and I have to get it in while people are still watching the hearing – and that means second round. I thought you made a commitment.”
“Oh fuck.” He turned back to his desk, and looked at his phone as if hoping for a call, something, anything to give him time to think. No call. “Look,” he said, turning back to me, “we’ve got a problem: we promised AIPAC” – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the heart and soul of the Israel lobby – “we’d ask a peace process question.”
“Peace process? What peace process?”
“Screw you. You know we’ve got to go with that question.” He was right: you made a promise to AIPAC, you didn’t break it. Me, well, people broke promises to me all the time. But AIPAC? Wasn’t going to happen. “And after that he has to ask something on Iraq, or he’ll look like he doesn’t care about the troops.”
I waited for a second to let that pass, and then reached into my briefcase. Handing over a thick folder, I said, “Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Forum 18, the State Department, the UN High Commission, report after report after report on human rights issues in Kazakhstan. This is the question for human rights in this hearing. I wasn’t kidding.”
Kevin glanced up at me as he opened the folder, then began flipping through the documents. It was an impressive pile, even for someone as hardened as Kevin. And as staffer to a Democrat out of Massachusetts, it played to just the right politics.
The irony, of course, was that I could scarcely stand the human rights crowd, and seldom gave them the time of day. Weenies one and all, that was my motto for them. But here, in this meeting, leaning on those dweebs just might work for me.
“We are talking about the Boston Globe here, Kevin,” I continued, pushing my luck a little. “If there’s anything that’s going to get Kleinmayer into the Globe report on the hearing, it’s not going to be support for the troops. It’s going to be something like this. And the reports are the kind of visual he can wave for the cameras.”
He continued to flip through them, stopping occasionally to read segments I’d highlighted in yellow. I waited, silent, giving him a little room to breathe.
“All right,” he said after a long pause. “We’ll do it.”
* * *
Leaving the Committee offices by the side door, I turned right to head for the long line waiting outside the Committee room. There I found the kid who was line-standing for me, making a little extra cash so I could have a seat for the hearing. Capitalism at its best – when I first started on the Hill, lobbyists all used to line up themselves, or send their junior associates to wait for a few hours until the Committee doors opened. Even then, depending on staff, media and important constituents (read, ‘donors’) brought into the room by their member of Congress, there might only be five or six seats for the public. So some enterprising soul outsourced the whole business, hiring students and the unemployed to stand in line and read the paper for $10 or $12 an hour; not a bad gig if you could get it.
The kid recognized me, and began gathering his schoolbooks in preparation to leave. “Wait a second, kid. I’m not ready yet.”
“It’s Larry, Mr. Matthews.” He shook his head as he settled back down, rolling his eyes to his fellow linestanders.
“Right, Larry. I know.” Actually, I had no idea, but I guessed that he’d stood in line for me before. Jesus, I thought, you gotta love a town where even the linestanders have attitude. “Look, Larry, sorry,” I said, glancing toward the Committee offices, “I just need to catch somebody on her way into the hearing. And call me Ed, for Chrissakes.”
I’d remembered what that bell going off in my head earlier was. I’d heard through the rumor mill that Rep. Toby Kelton, Democrat of Oregon, needed a new Foreign Operations Subcommittee staffer. I knew Toby and I knew his chief of staff, and could easily place a call to the latter recommending Alexis. If I could place her in that job, I’d earn points with all of them. But while I knew she was smart, what I most needed was to know whether or not she paid attention to what was going on around her. The way Peter always dominated the conversation when the four of us were together, I had absolutely no idea.
Pulling out my Blackberry while I waited, I looked down the line at the now suspicious faces. “I’m staying here for now, but only one of us is going into the room.” The grumbling slowed to a dull roar, but I wasn’t sure that I’d convinced them; years ago you could get away with cutting in line for hearings, but once the whole process had been privatized, it was a lot more vicious.
It was a good forty minutes later when as Alexis walked toward the hearing room. I stepped out of line to cut her off. “Can I ask you a quick question?”
“Sure,” she smiled, and I led her across the hall. Washington’s version of a private conversation, crossing the hall to put fifteen feet between you and everyone else. Usually it was the best I could do, especially on this kind of drop-by.
“Any surprises expected in there today?”
She was taken aback; she hadn’t expected a serious question. “Nothing much, it’s all just post-State-of-the-Union stuff, one side attacking, the other side mimicking the President’s line.”
Nicely put. “Nothing interesting in the questions?”
She paused, and thought. “Well, of course, the Committee intends to closely question the Secretary on…”
“No, c’mon, really, it’s me – not the Committee line, please. I’m just curious, nothing out of the ordinary, unexpected?” I waited. This would tell me something.
“Well, maybe.” She looked around, and finding no one overly close, leaned in toward me. “Fairchild’s bringing in some constituents. He’s going to sandbag the Secretary. Some country in the Middle East, something about their kid being imprisoned unfairly.” She smiled up at me. “No one knows but you, me and the television camera crews.”
Shit, I thought, that didn’t sound good. It was what I was looking for – she had been listening – but it might actually be one of our clients. I stared at the wall for a second, and then noticed she was still waiting. “Mind if I ask one more question?” She pursed her lips, but nodded – a ‘yes, but…’ move. “I take it you’re looking for a more interesting job?” I asked.
Her cheeks reddened sharply, and she looked around a little wildly. Stepping a little closer, whispering, “Is it that obvious?”
“Not really, but I keep an eye out.” I tried to look innocent, like it wasn’t her plunging neckline that gave it away. I doubt that I succeeded, although I recall very clearly that I was able to keep myself from checking out her boobs as she leaned in. “But you’re not just looking to change jobs, you’re looking for something better?”
“God, please, I’m going nuts doing nothing but smile all day.” She laughed. “I’m looking for a policy job; you know, my degree’s in International Relations.”
“Send me a resume. I think I might know someone on Foreign Ops who’s looking.” I paused for a second, wondering whether or not to blow my innocence on the whole neckline thing, but decided I had to, since I had my own reputation to protect. “And do us both a favor” – this time I leaned in – “don’t wear that dress to the interview; he votes like your typical liberal Democrat, but he’s pretty conservative personally and surprisingly shy. You’ll scare him to death.”
She blushed again, deeper this time, and thanked me for the help. “That’s okay, really.” I wanted to ask if Peter was helping her find something interesting, but from what I’d seen of their relationship, I decided not to. Glancing over her shoulder at the increasingly long line outside the hearing room, I quickly changed the topic. “Now, though, I should find my placeholder – looks like the natives are getting restless, and you’re the only one who can set them free.”
* * *
Four hours later, I was over on the Senate side, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, meeting with my grade-A, number one, absolute go-to guy, the first guy I went to when I was having problems, the one guy who could almost always help me sort them out. I’d met Roger Bauman in my very first year in Washington, one of two critical friendships that dated from that year. Roger was a lifelong staffer who moved from office to office within the Senate over the years, never heading off to the Administration or into campaigning. Such staying power required tact and patience, and Roger was expert at both. Quiet and cautious, with a wide ranges of tics and twitches that kept anyone who didn’t know him off balance, he was hard to get close to. But he well worth the time and effort, being incredibly well read, encyclopedic in his knowledge of what was happening in Washington at any given moment, and a generous friend to the few of us who got past his strange exterior.
I could never explain my friendship with Roger, since most everyone else I knew was scared of him. It wasn’t so much a social friendship – no beers and dogs while watching a football game – but rather one built entirely around our shared interest in what made Washington tick. I always tried to explain it to Charlotte by the fact that we shared an interest in listening, in understanding what made people tick and why they did the things they did. He was the one person in town who got that side of me.
I wasn’t scheduled to see Roger, but Fairchild’s move over at House Foreign Affairs had turned out just as I’d feared: it was about our client, and I needed some ideas. “It was damned well staged, Roger. Fairchild handled it very well.”
Just as Alexis had predicted, Sam Fairchild, Republican from Illinois, had surprised Secretary Rice during the hearing, going after her about a young woman by the name of Karen Jameson, imprisoned somewhere in the UAE on suspicion of being a terrorist. A liberal Republican, one of the five or so left in the House, Fairchild could normally be trusted to handle Administration witnesses with care: not only was George W still in the White House, but his own constituency was increasingly moving to the right, leaving Fairchild to walk a fine line between supporting the leader of his party and voting his conscience. This time, though, it was a local issue, and he’d castigated the Secretary for the Administration’s lackadaisical response to the student’s imprisonment. Me, I’d known nothing about it.
“After his questions, Fairchild made a point to walk around to the back of the hearing room to speak to a well-dressed couple seated near the back. The woman had been crying, so I figure it was the kid’s parents; and the State Department folks were watching the whole thing very closely.”
“What did he have to do that for?” Roger stared at me through his heavy black glasses, his left eye twitching. He had a wonderful habit of expecting me to answer the unanswerable, and an impressive ability to unnerve me despite his utterly unimpressive physical presence.
Roger was small, thin, and slope-shouldered, his white dress shirt and thin black tie hanging off him. He blinked rapidly, his nose wrinkling up like a rabbit, when he was nervous, and nervous was his normal state of mind. His desk was bare but for a stacked in- and outbox, both almost empty, a small pile of whatever papers he needed at that moment, a phone and his computer monitor. Roger hardly seemed to use the computer, preferring to have notes written for him and work the old-fashioned way, face-to-face with nothing to record the conversation. I often felt he’d missed his calling when he decided not to become a monk, but everyone else I worked with always underestimated him, so I’d long before decided that his look was carefully considered. He was the smartest guy in the place, and the best horse-trader in a Committee full of them.
Today, though, he wasn’t happy and had decided to take it out on me. When I’d first walked in, he’d given me one of his trademarked what-are-you-doing-here? looks, and now he was still staring, waiting for me to answer his question. He was the critical player in our UAE amendment, since Coherence Electronics, the prime contractor manufacturing the ARCHON, was based in his boss’s home state of Michigan. Rep. Fairchild’s actions could threaten to make the Senator’s amendment a whole lot more difficult than he’d planned for.
Our UAE amendment was pretty straightforward, a single line in the appropriations bill declaring the United Arab Emirates a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ of the United States. Established in the 1980s for the Israelis, and piggybacked on by Egypt first and then many others over the years, MNNA was mostly just an opportunity to get in line for discarded military equipment the Army, Navy, Air Force et al. no longer wanted. The Coast Guard and the Reserves got first crack at the stuff, followed by the Indian tribes, then the MNNAs in order of priority. Among those, the Izzies went first, and I could never understand what would be left after they got through with the list: they’re exceptionally attentive when it comes to getting free stuff from the U.S., and I had to figure there would be so little of any use left once they’d picked everything over that other countries would be left with spare parts from broken-down trucks, jeeps and penny-ante ships the military wanted to dump. But MNNA had turned into a big deal among Arab countries, part of the ongoing I’m-a-better-friend-to-the-evil-Satan-America-than-you-are competition they always seem to be embroiled in.
Whatever, it was our job to get it, and Roger was ready to help. Sort of. Mostly, he expected us to get it done. “So what next?”
“Hey, don’t look at me, I have no idea.”
“No, you idiot, what happened next?” He shifted in his chair, straightening his body and settling himself firmly in the exact center of desk. His standard, old-style wooden desk was far too big for him, and made him seem smaller than he actually was. Reaching to his left, he shifted his pile of papers almost imperceptibly, straightening them I guessed, and resumed his staring at me, a disconcerting look despite the furious blinking.
I chuckled. “Nothing else happened.” At least, nothing else Roger needed to know right then. I’d gotten my Dungan question asked just like I’d wanted, with the cameras rolling, and had Michelle back in the office recording the hearing off CSPAN so we could digitize the video and ship it off to the client. But that wasn’t anything Roger cared about. “You know, the hearing went on, and for all I know they’re still over there babbling away. I just thought I’d get the hell out of there and see if you might have some ideas.”
“Nothing.” He turned to his left, glancing randomly at his computer screen. By now, it would be showing his screensaver, random photos from a walking tour through Greece he’d gone on the year before. Dry, ascetic, barren landscapes. Just where I’d have expected Roger to go. “How do you plan to fix it?”
“I told you,” I laughed, “I’ve got no idea. I’ll think about it, though, if it makes you feel any better.”
“You better fix it, if you want that amendment in our bill.”
So it was my job. In theory, his Senator needed the amendment as much as we did, but Senators have lots of things they need and build their record on winning more often than they lose. For a lobbyist, though, losing an issue can mean losing a client.
This was a serious problem: the whole plan for our MNNA amendment was to sneak it through the process without anyone knowing about it. Parents who were smart enough to show up at the SecState hearing, and get their Congressman to rip the Secretary a new one, people like that were likely to notice. And to put up a stink.
At the same time, some kid jailed on terrorism charges wouldn’t be easy to spring out of prison – which I already knew was the only way to get the ’rents to shut up. In the post-Abu Ghraib environment, with the U.S. still holding a few hundred Arabs, Africans and South Asians in a rat-infested prison in Nowhere, Cuba, it was going to be next to impossible to convince any Arab governments to spring an American citizen, no matter how slim the accusations. And for all I knew, she really was a terrorist.
This was definitely not good.
But hell, if it wasn’t difficult, they wouldn’t have needed us, would they?